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May 2019 Lead

Wednesday, May 22, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Needa Virani
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May 2019
GWIS LEAD is a GWIS periodical profiling women leaders in science.  Subscribe
Audrey Thévenon - Advisor to Policy Makers and Rugby Players
Audrey D. Thévenon, Ph.D., is a Program Officer with the Board on Life Sciences and the Managing Editor for the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research Journal at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Since joining the National Academies, Dr. Thévenon has been involved in activities that support capacity building to counter biological threats, and studies investigating the potential risks and benefits of advanced biotechnologies. Over the past few years, she has also been involved in collaborative regional and international activities aimed at promoting transdisciplinary approaches to solving public health issues. Currently, she leads a study on Biological Collections. Since 2015, she co-leads a Pakistan fellowship program for One-Health researchers in collaboration with Kenya, Thailand, and Singapore. Dr. Thévenon has an M.S. in Cellular and Molecular Biology with a focus on human reproduction from the Université de Rennes 1 in France, and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Biology with a specialization in tropical medicine and immunology from Georgetown University. Prior to arriving at the National Academies, Dr. Thévenon served as a Research Assistant at the University of Hawaii, where she worked on malaria vaccine development. She then worked at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, MD on 2 PEPFAR-funded HIV-Malaria projects in collaboration with Nigeria and Kenya.

Dr. Thévenon participated in this month's Coffee and Conversation webinar, and she was also gracious enough to tell me a bit more about herself and her career path for this issue of GWIS Lead. 

Can you tell us a bit about what you do?

As a Program Officer at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, my goal is to help solve complex scientific questions with public policy implications. To accomplish this, I convene and work closely with committees of experts on activities such as workshops, round tables, forums, and, what we are the most known for – consensus reports. Program Officers are responsible for developing and managing one or more scientific projects, which includes raising funds for new projects, assembling committees/panels, directing activities, developing prospectuses and helping disseminate the key findings or recommendations of our products.

How do you choose which projects to work on? Do you come up with them and then get them approved, or are they handed down from elsewhere?

Sometimes you choose and sometimes you don’t. Some projects are asked for by sponsors and then whoever has time will take on that project. The topics can vary widely and often you may have zero expertise on the topic! Other times, you get to develop a proposal that relates to your expertise, a discussion with the Board or Committee members, or a conference you have attended, etc. … Often, the difficult task is to find sponsors to fund the activity. In all cases, you have to get the project approved by our Board of Governors before you can start the activity.

What was your favorite project, and what did you like about it?

It’s a hard question because all the projects are so different and fascinating! One of my favorite projects is a One-Health Fellowship Program, for the past four years, I’ve had the chance to work closely with scientists from all around the world and what I have learned from them has left an imprint on my personal and professional life.

Do you ever get overwhelmed by the idea that you're working on a problem or policy that could/will affect you personally and if you can't relay complex science to the right people then bad policy might be enacted? (I’ve read some crazy things about what some lawmakers apparently believe, and I'm wondering if there's something we could do to prevent this.)

We endeavor to provide evidence-based advice on critical issues that affect the nation as a whole. Often you wonder if you addressed all facets of the issue so decision-makers feel empowered to make changes in our current policies, but you can’t control how some leaders receive our recommendations. We try our hardest to make our report comprehensible to the lay audience but this is not an easy exercise. Over the past few years, we have developed a lot of derivative products including one-pagers and video and interactive webpages to increase our chances to reach all audiences, but we still have a long way to go!

Why should the average person be excited about what you do?

We work on advising the nation on how to solve the pressing issues we face. By reading our reports or coming to our meetings, one can learn from the most respected and influential scientific thinkers on these issues; this empowers our audience to reflect on ways to help shape a better future for the generations to come.

What do you think is the most pressing issue facing us right now? If picking one is too hard, how about the top three?

This is a very tough question as we live in an incredibly interconnected world where one issue leads to others! If you look carefully at the UN Sustainable Development Goals, it is hard not to see the link between all of these global issues. For instance, instabilities due to wars, disease epidemics, or natural disasters undermine public health, weaken economies, increase inequalities, and displace populations. We need transdisciplinary and collaborative approaches to solve these issues. The rise of inward-looking societies is only going to exacerbate these issues.

Dr. Thévenon at the Pakistan Academy of Sciences with Engr. Muhammad Baligh ur Rehman from the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training.
The National Academies delegation received a plate to immortalize a successful collaboration as part of the One-Health Fellowship program.

What is something that others normally misunderstand or misrepresent in your field?

Not necessarily in the field of science policy, but about the National Academies: very often people think that we are part of the government. The National Academies is a private, non-profit institution, which allows us to give unbiased, independent advice to the government.

Is it hard to deliver completely unbiased reports when you think that you might have the ability to affect policy a certain way, or are these reports generally just data?

It is not hard to deliver unbiased reports if you stick to evidence-based science. Our findings, on which we base our recommendations, are based on the literature and discussion with experts. Often, a recommendation cannot be made on the current state of the science or because more evidence needs to be generated in order to produce irrefutable evidence, in this case, the committee just states these limitations. Our reports are rarely only data; the gene-drive report, for instance, had a full chapter on value and another on governance.

Has there ever been a report that you think may have had some embedded politics in it?

Not that I know of. We are not an advocacy organization, and therefore we are very careful about stating facts as opposed to following political motives. Government reaches out to us to provide independent and objective advice, embedding politics would go against our mission.

Have you ever had a report misunderstood or misinterpreted and cited as saying something that it totally didn't say?

Yes, this happens often but it’s par for the course. Often the media makes a few mistakes; sometimes we can change it or respond to it, and sometimes we just let it go. Sometimes people misuse the message of our reports, and we usually respond by putting a statement on our website.

Dr. Thévenon at the White House with the committee that put together the report "Gene Drive in the Horizon" in 2016. From left to right: James Collins; Keegan Sawyer, Study Director at NAS; Lisa Taneyhill (back); Elizabeth Heitman (front); Frances Sharples, Board Director; Audrey Thevenon; and Jason Delborne.

Dr. Thévenon is easy to spot because of her bright pink badge identifying her as a French citizen.

What do you think are the most important steps you took to get where you are now?

Networking was undoubtedly key to my success.

Do you have any tips for those starting out and trying to build a network?

I would start with your inner circle of professional peers and then little by little increase this circle. For instance, if you want to go to a professional happy-hour or a professional event organized by your university, bring a friend. I find it is easier to connect when accompanied than when alone; others may think the opposite. You need to find your style. Bottom line: go to these events! Also, if you have a mentor, ask if you can tag along to events they go to, there is nothing more powerful than being introduced by your mentor or your supervisor. I also found that just talking to random people when you go to the gym or at your hairdresser can sometimes pay off! Finally, people love to talk about anything and everything but work—even at conferences—so never pass on a drink after the last session and have fun.

Is your current job what you always wanted to do?

Previously in my career I was a bench scientist. I realized very early that doing research on infectious disease without a way to make my contribution truly influential was increasingly frustrating. Public health was a vehicle for broader conversations especially in the field of public health policy. Once I discovered this world, I reached a point of no return!

How did you meet the people you did that made your transition to policy possible? Did you seek them out because of your frustrations? Did someone come up to you after a presentation and say, "you seem awesome and trustworthy, you should come work with us and develop public health policies"?

I wish!

I questioned my ability to thrive in an academic environment and started to look around for options. My first aha moment was at the NIH career symposium when I was a postdoc. I remember feeling invigorated and overwhelmed at the same time but I could finally see the range of options offered to scientists. Once I knew these options, I felt I was able to speak a new language. It then became easier to assemble my professional wish list and discuss career options with others. I was introduced to the National Academies through a friend who worked there. She introduced me to Board directors when I visited her, which undoubtedly made a world of difference when a position was posted.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists, particularly women in science?

Find a mentor in your field who believes in you and wants the best for you and your career whatever path you decide to follow. We all need a role model. We also all need to feel that we belong to a community; so find your village and get the support you need—surround yourself with people who are going or have gone through the same life or professional events as you.

Dr. Thévenon at the Albert Einstein Memorial in Washington, DC with the Committee on Biological Collections that will wrap up in November 2019. Although some of the committee members are the same as those Dr. Thévenon worked with on "Gene Drive in the Horizon" in 2016 (see previous photo), each committee is staffed with specific experts chosen for that project.
What is your favorite thing about what you do?
Two things are equally important: The constant exposure to varied and fascinating topics and the ability to work with incredibly accomplished experts from all domains of science.

Do you have any hobbies/things you do in your free time? Do you have free time?

I make the time, now. It used to be different. I think we all go through phases; personally, I had a long phase where I needed to prove to the world that I was worth it! Then I reached that time where I could rely on what I had become. I remember that transition. I have two main passions: my family and rugby. I marry both by coaching my sons. I also consider my job as a passion, but it’s all about balance.
Dr. Thévenon coaching her sons playing rugby.
Contributed by Rozzy Finn.

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